Telemedicine: Zimbabwe embraces the future of healthcare

Martin Mapfumo

During the COVID-19 pandemic era, there was need to reduce doctor visits without compromising access to essential health services and the lives of doctors and patients.

To remedy the pandemic crisis, doctors and health companies adopted telemedicine which is also known as Telehealth. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for further development and even diversification of telemedicine services in the post-pandemic period. Though the concept of Telemedicine is not new, as the acceleration development of Information Communication and Technology (ICT) have led many healthcare systems around the world to recognize the suitability of remote health service provision as a solution to the chronic shortages of doctors.

One may ask what telemedicine is, different definitions have been coined. According to Centrul Pentru Politici Servicing De San state (CPSS), Telemedicine is the totality of medical services provided remotely, in a secure manner, by means of information technology and electronic means of communication without the simultaneous physical presence of the medical staff and the patient, that aim to establish the diagnosis, indicate the treatment, monitor certain diseases or indicate disease prevention methods.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Telemedicine as the provision of health services by health professionals, where distance is a critical factor, using information and communication technologies to exchange valid information for the purposes of diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases and injury, research and evaluation, and to facilitate the continuing education of health professionals, with the aim of safeguarding the health of individuals and communities.

It is important to note, Telemedicine will not replace face to face consultation but will compliment it. It will be in the form of phone calls, where patients seek the doctor’s advice concerning non-emergency medical problems which do not require the doctor to see the patient. Which is why each doctor or care team must first consider whether it is appropriate to carry out a remote consultation or not.

By using and adopting Telemedicine concept, the people in both rural and urban areas will benefit from its advantages.

The first advantage of Telemedicine is its convenient and reduced costs. The concept allows one to avoid driving to the doctor’s office or clinic, park, walk or sit in a waiting room when they are sick. That is, long travel costs are cut and there is resource mobilisation. Patients often experience long delays when seeking health care.

Telemedicine can also help select urgent calls after a doctor’s office is closed. It is of immense value in the follow-up of patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. Individuals who are not experiencing any immediate medical problem, but require help with dosage adjustments, lifestyle regimens, prescription refills, or even just access to group support, can benefit from the convenience of telemedicine.

Another advantage is family connections, where a family member can help you provide information, ask questions and take note of your doctor’s answers. If that person lives out of town, or even across the country, telemedicine can loop the family member in on the virtual visit if you authorize it.

Better assessment, Telemedicine can give health practitioners through zoom, Skype, Google class etc. and assessment of ones home environment. For example, allergists may be able to identify clues in your surroundings that cause allergies. Neurologists, physical and occupational therapists can observe you and assess your ability to navigate and take care of yourself in your home. Telemedicine is also a good way to get mental health assessment and counseling.

Telemedicine is steadily growing in Africa and Zimbabwe, where the Government through the Ministry of Health and Child Care is adopting the concept. This adoption by the Ministry can increase start-ups and create a conducive environment that can attract investors into the country’s digital health sector.

However, clinics and hospitals in rural areas lack resources, good network, broadband, drugs, manpower and accessories, something that hinders the delivery of quality healthcare to people. To make the Telemedicine more acceptable in remote areas, there is need for Health professionals in rural areas to be trained, have career advancement, up-to-date information and digital applications to help address challenges they face in their work. The Government must prioritise rural areas to develop infrastructure for network, broadband, road access among others.

Telemedicine has the possibility to bridge the information gap, build the confidence and offer clinical tools for the management of certain conditions at least to cost in rural areas. There is need to increase knowledge and awareness about the benefits of telemedicine in local communities.

Zimbabwe's adoption of telemedicine signifies a progressive step towards embracing new technologies that enhance and expand healthcare services for its people. By integrating telemedicine into its healthcare system, Zimbabwe is not only improving access to healthcare but also creating opportunities for digital health sector growth and development. This move demonstrates Zimbabwe's commitment to leverage technology for the betterment of its citizens' health and well-being.